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Key Largo – Scuba, Sunsets, and More

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Photos by Hugh Hudson

Shallow reefs, deep and shallow wrecks, sanctuary protected marine life and year round diving. Okay, no shore diving to speak of, but there are plenty of good reasons that Key Largo is a popular destination for divers from across the country and around the world.  It is ideal for beginners with reefs that are 30-40 feet in depth and advanced and technical divers can explore deeper wrecks like the 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove to the extent that their training allows.

Key Largo – known outside the dive community for the classic Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall film (not to mention the later song by Bertie Higgins) – is the first populated town as you leave the Florida mainland peninsula and make your way south to Key West and the southernmost point in the United States. Key Largo is also home to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park established in the U.S., and the iconic, much-photographed Christ of the Abyss statue sits in only 25 feet of water at a site called Dry Rocks. It is, however, the sheer multitude of dive sites and dive operations that makes Key Largo a favored spot. If you want extra details about the geological underpinning of Key Largo’s diving, check out http://www.fla-keys.com/keylargo/keylargodivewonderland.cfm, but for the sake of this post, let’s focus on the more than 50 regularly visited sites that are available within a 40-minute boat ride.  With the third largest barrier reef in the world, the sites are a mix of natural reefs and numerous genuine wrecks in scattered debris fields as well as ships deployed as artificial reefs. The older, genuine wrecks have little structure remaining as is to be expected in warm salt water, but they provide great habitats for creatures large and small.

Everyone loves the turtles that live on Key Largo reefs

Everyone loves the turtles that live on Key Largo reefs

While you do not, in general, have the profusion of colorful corals and sponges of many places in the Caribbean, abundant and healthy marine life is to be seen within moments of slipping underwater.  “The usual suspects” will be multiple varieties of snapper, parrotfish (including the beautiful midnight variety), barracuda, angelfish, butterfly fish, trumpetfish, grunts, hog fish, file fish, lizardfish, squirrelfish, trunkfish, damselfish, eels, southern stingrays, turtles, nurse sharks, groupers, (including goliaths), sea cucumbers, shrimp, and lobsters. A hundred other species could be named and seeing dolphins on the ride to or from the sites is not unusual, nor is the appearance of manatees in the canals. Snapper Ledge gets its name from the fact that schools of fish are often so dense that they obscure sections of the reef. For those who happen to be in the water at the right time and location, there are occasional visits from a cruising hammerhead, a manta ray, or even a whale shark, and technical divers who go to the really deep wrecks such as the Northern Lights will often encounter bull sharks.

The growth on the USS Spiegel Grove, the 510-foot ship off Key Largo can be seen as this scrawled file fish swims by

The growth on the USS Spiegel Grove, the 510-foot ship off Key Largo can be seen as this scrawled file fish swims by

Although the reliability of Key Largo weather can be impacted by either storms or systems that bring in high winds and the water temperature does drop to around 70 degrees in the winter months, charters go out every day of the year, conditions permitting. Granted, there is an element of amusement when locals hesitate to dive with air and in water with a temperature in the low 70s, while visitors escaping snow and ice are happy with the balmy weather.  However, when it is chilly, appropriate protection with layering is in order for the boat ride. March through mid-May usually brings air temperature in the 80s and the water moving up to 75+ degrees, and by the end of May through late September, hot is the word. Hats, sunscreen, and hydration are all important. October is a toss-up with heat that usually comes down in November.

Visibility and currents on the deep wrecks will often vary more than on the reefs and a normal day for the reefs will be 50-60 feet of visibility and mild current, with frequent days of 70-100 feet. For those who appreciate technology, there is a NOAA tower mounted at Molasses Reef and you can access it for the latest conditions. (http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/station_page.php?station=mlrf1)

Choosing among approximately two dozen dive centers in Key Largo might be the difficult part, and that very much becomes a personal choice. Some shops specialize in a maximum of six passengers, others have the 14 passenger boats, and several operators have the large boats that carry between 30 and 42 passengers. The larger operators may have two different size boats that can be a factor if traveling with a group of mixed levels.  Many of the dive shops have their own dock and others have a storefront with their boat at a nearby marina. There are resorts that have the complete package of lodging, on-site dive center, and restaurant. Individual dive centers may well have discount arrangements with hotel and restaurants, so check that when you either call a dive shop or look at a web site.

KL Ray

Southern stingrays are seen more commonly on the reefs, than are eagle and lemon rays

There are three particular things to know about dive centers in Key Largo.  The first is a regional Coast Guard requirement for a mate to remain on board with the captain any time there are more than six customers. This means that unlike in most other places, dive centers, in general, do not put a dive master into the water with divers because that would mean having two dive masters per trip which would then increase the per dive cost. Some dive centers have chosen to either absorb that cost or pass it on, but if you want a guide, you will need to ask the direct question. Hiring a guide will be an additional charge and also leads to the next item. The scuba community standard policy is that if a diver has not been in the water for a year, the shop could very well require the diver to have a guide for the first trip and this will be an additional cost. If it has been two or more years since last diving there may be a need for a refresher course. The third item is for those who wish to dive the deep wrecks of the Bibb, Duane, and USS Spiegel Grove. These are advanced dives with the community standard of showing proof of advanced certification, documented wreck and deep experience, or to be in the company of a guide in order to do the dive. Even though you can dive a small part of the Spiegel at approximately 65 feet, most of the ship is at 80 feet or below and current can be challenging. Descending onto the 510-foot long ship is an awesome experience, but it is not for novices.  While the Bibb and Duane are not as large, they are older artificial reefs with significant marine growth.

KL Puffer

Porcupine puffers are camera shy, but seen fairly often on the reefs

For planning purposes, Key Largo is a little over an hour from Miami International Airport during non-peak traffic time and Fort Lauderdale Airport is twenty minutes further north. The Florida Turnpike (toll road) is the most direct route and it ends in Florida City/Homestead as you pick up Highway 1 South, also known as the Overseas Highway. This is a two-lane road with only a couple of passing zones, so relax and watch for egrets, ospreys, herons, and other water fowl along the way.

Once you arrive in Key Largo, local directions tend to be given as Ocean Side or Bay Side and by Mile Marker rather than using street names.  As you drive south, the Atlantic Ocean is to your left (east) and Florida Bay to your right (west). The sunset restaurants are bay-side, but the dive sites are ocean-side and therefore about ten minutes less of a boat ride if the dive center you choose is located ocean-side.

KL Jawfish

Rubble around the reefs are favorite habitats for yellow head jawfish

If there is one thing that rivals the number of dive centers in Key Largo, that would be restaurants and bars. As you can imagine, there is a lot of outdoor dining, and casual is most assuredly the preferred attire. Claims to have the best conch fritters and key lime pie abound and while American cuisine and fresh seafood are what you find the most, you can get Italian, Mexican, Thai, and one or two others. Hog fish and lion fish might be on the menu – both are firm white fish that you won’t find offered in too many places and both are highly recommended.

KL Goliath

Adult Goliath Grouper on Key Largo reef. (All photos from Hugh Hudson)

For your non-diving days, or if you have non-divers with you, other watersports are plentiful and the Wild Bird Center is a fun place to visit. A short trip south will take you to the Theater of the Sea or to the History of Diving Museum with its rich displays of 4,000 years of man’s attempts to temporarily exist beneath the waves. A short trip back north to Florida City and Homestead puts you at the doorstep of the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, the Coral Castle, and the Monkey Jungle. In fact, if hotel rooms are hard to find in Key Largo, Florida City and Homestead provide an easy alternative. If you want to take the Overseas Highway all the way south passing through Islamorada, Marathon, over the much-filmed Seven Mile Bridge and arriving in Key West, plan a full two hours. The scenic two-lane road has few places to pass.

Schools of fish such as these grunts are a common sight on reefs

Schools of fish such as these grunts are a common sight on reefs

Warm breezes, palm fronds rustling, tropical blossoms, parrots that streak overhead top side, with teeming marine life below. This is the Key Largo that you may not have visited for a while, or perhaps have never come to. It is a slice of paradise right here in the United States, and for those 300-plus days a year when Mother Nature isn’t being capricious, a healthy underwater world with the tiniest shrimp up to 600-pound goliath groupers awaits you.

An excellent web site for more information is http://www.fla-keys.com/keylargo

Charlie Hudson is the author of Deadly Doubloons, Islands in the Sand: An Introduction to Artificial Reefs in the US, and other dive-themed novels and non-fiction. She and her husband, Hugh, are both retired Army and live in South Florida where they pursue their “fun” second careers. You can see all of Charlie’s work and access her blog at http://charliehudson.net

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Into the Blue

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After a quiet year of no designated dive trips, September saw me return to the Red Sea thanks to The Scuba Place. M/Y Big Blue was my accommodation for the week and Northern Wrecks and Reefs was the itinerary. This was a big change for me, as I’d normally choose a Southern itinerary in search of sharks. Apart from a trip to Sharm El Sheikh back in 2013, while still a novice diver, I hadn’t been to the north and certainly hadn’t dived any of the major wrecks the Northern itinerary is famous for. It was a welcome change to try a different style of diving to what I was used to and YES!! It didn’t disappoint!! 

Big Blue’s spacious dive deck provides ample room and caters for max 24 divers.

The Scuba Place are the exclusive UK travel agent for the liveaboard Big Blue. With Big Blue being directly connected to Roots Red Sea, they can provide bespoke trips combining the two. I was also lucky enough to have a surprise visit to Roots at the end of my trip, but more about that later. Big Blue is a large vessel at 40m long and 8m wide, and it provides plenty of space for guests onboard. Even at full capacity with 24 divers, the spacious dive deck provides ample room for guests to kit up and prepare to dive. With 12 cabins set over 3 decks, I was lucky to get one of the twin cabins on the sundeck. Opening my door to the beautiful sunny blue skies and blue water of the Red Sea was the wake up I needed for a special day.

The whole trip was completed with the accommodating staff who couldn’t do enough for you. The food was delicious and well prepared. A buffet style, with dinner always being my favourite, while sunset snack time before the night dive on the back of the main deck was always a treat. Drinks provided after every dive and always someone on hand to help you kit up and de-kit, it was the finishing touches to what were amazing dives. The diving was facilitated by Pharaoh Dive Club, and with Mohammed in charge everything ran efficiently and safety was paramount. An excellent initial boat and dive briefing was followed by expert leadership throughout the week. Always willing to listen to the guests’ needs and what we’d like to do. Doing what they could to make it work, while keeping safety in mind. Last thing you want is a rigid schedule leaving room for disappointment. An extremely impressive week onboard and here’s how the diving went…

A Hawksbill Turtle comes to greet me on the stunning Jackson Reef.

We sailed north from Hurghada and it was so refreshing to be back in the beautiful clear water of the Red Sea. The first couple of days were more reefs than wrecks, as we hit some of the famous sites the north has to offer. JackFish Alley gave me a bit of déjà vu. I remembered 9 years ago doing my navigation as part of my Advanced Open Water; it was great to be back and spend more time exploring its beauty, a coral pinnacle full of glassfish and big barracuda being cleaned providing the highlights. It was Jackson Reef that was my favourite though as a Hawksbill Turtle added to the incredible life on the reef that is typical of the Red Sea. Close encounters with blue spotted stingrays, a crocodile fish and a huge puffer in one small area make the sandy bottoms as special as the reefs. Night diving provided some fun critters with devil scorpion fish, a bumbling stonefish and numerous pyjama nudibranch keeping me occupied.

My dive buddy John explores a lathe in the tool room of the Million Hope.

While the reefs dominated the first couple of days, we did get an introduction to the wrecks on offer. Our first came on our second dive as we penetrated the Dunraven. A nice easy wreck to penetrate with a lot of life amongst it and on it. I do get why you wreck lovers get so excited getting inside and finding your way through the cracks. It is exciting and this was more evident on our second wreck of the trip – the Million Hope. Not your typical wreck on a typical northern wrecks and reef itinerary but again this shows the bespoke nature of a Big Blue liveaboard with The Scuba Place. More apparent on our visit as we were the only divers diving it. The weather has to be right due to how shallow it is with parts visible above water. This makes it a great recreational dive, and making my way into the engine room was a real treat and then back out up the stairs. A real adventure and one of my favourite wrecks of the trip.

A Blue Spotted Stingray feeds in the sand on the corner of Thomas Reef.

Before the lust for rust really started halfway through the trip we headed to the Straits of Tiran and Ras Mohammed once more for Thomas Reef and the famous Shark and Yolanda Reef. Thomas Reef was another beautiful wall full of stunning coral including huge gorgonian fan coral, while a feeding Blue Spotted Ray and another Hawksbill Turtle completed the dive on the corner of the reef. Shark and Yolanda was a lot more adventurous due to the currents, as a short fight against it and then a quick drift with it had you wondering which way it would go next. It started quite calm with a gentle cruise past Anemone City, then all hell broke loose as we hit the corner. It was certainly full of life though, with schooling jacks and snapper comfortable in the raging current as we flew past. The current took us over the reef and to the Yolanda Wreck. It was good to be back after 9 years and see that it is still a great site full of life. A brilliant start to the week and we were now on our way to the famous wrecks of the North.

Stay tuned for part 2 soon.

For more information about diving on Big Blue:

www.thescubaplace.co.uk

john@thescubaplace.co.uk

Pyjama Nudibranch taken on the first night dive of the trip at Sho’ab Mahmoud.

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Halloween Special Part 2: PADI’s top 7 wrecks to dive in Bermuda

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Just in time for Halloween, we’re back with Part 2 of our deep dive with PADI into spooky Bermuda… 

  1. The Mary Celestia

Also known as the Mary Celeste, this Civil War-era paddle steamer hit a coral reef and sank to her watery grave 1884. She’s known as one of the oldest wrecks in the area and is well-preserved considering: divers can view both her intact paddlewheel and engine, plus her bow, stern, boilers, and anchor. Resting at 55 feet below the surface, a little piece of Mary Celestia made its way above water in 2015 after a few bottles of 150-year-old wine were discovered and delivered to sommeliers for sampling in Charleston, South Carolina.

  1. The Cristóbal Colón

This enormous ship is the largest wreck in all of Bermuda. Coming in at a whopping 499 feet long, the Cristóbal Colón was a Spanish luxury liner that crashed into a coral reef off the north shore in 1936. With an abundance of marine life that’s settled in and around the wreckage strewn across 100,000 square feet of the sea floor, she’s visited by snorkelers and divers alike. Today she can be found at depths of 15 to 60 feet, but she used to peek out the surface of the water when she first sank, up until she was used for target practice in World War II.

  1. The Iristo

Only a year after the Cristóbal Colón went down, the Iristo (also known as the Aristo) followed in 1937. The captain of the Norwegian freighter is said to have been startled by the Cristóbal Colón’s wreckage, which ultimately led to the Iristo’s own untimely fate. He ordered the crew to change course but the Iristo struck a submerged reef and went down too! Her wreckage remains to this day with engine, boilers, and propeller visible amongst spectacular coral.

  1. The North Carolina

Looking for an extra spooky dive? Check out the North Carolina’s ghostly “deadeyes” in rows along her deck railings – the uncanny sailing riggings look just like cartoon skulls. At depths between 25 and 45 feet, she makes for an eerie visit whether taking a shallow dive as a beginner or diving into the deep. Hailing from Liverpool, this 250-foot English iron hull sank on New Year’s Day in 1880 when she ran aground southwest of Bermuda. Despite attempts to raise her, she remains in the depths of the sea sitting upright with a collapsed mid-section.

  1. The Montana and the Constellation

Get a two-for-one dive in when you visit the Montana and the Constellation, uniquely stacked on top of each other to the northwest of Bermuda. The Montana wreck dates back to 1863 – the Civil War era blockade runner hit a shallow reef and down she went. The Constellation followed eighty years later in 1943 and some reports state that the Montana’s bow took her down! The American cargo ship was carrying building materials and scotch when she went down, so divers can view stacks of cement bags and glassware when they explore these shallow waters.

  1. The Hermes

Explore the outside or inside of Hermes, a freighter that experienced engine trouble and was abandoned by her crew. Built in 1943, the lonely ship was deserted until 1984 when she was acquired by the Bermuda Dive Association and turned into a sunken artificial reef. She’s known as a highly photogenic beauty with fantastic visibility. Fully intact with her mast pointing to the surface, Hermes has come a long way from desertion as one of Bermuda’s most popular dive sites.

  1. The King George

Another lonely and ghostly ship left to sink to the bottom of the sea, the King George is a large dredger that was built for the Bermuda Government. After arriving on the island in 1911, she served a few years before being towed out to sea and left to sink in 1930 when she was no longer needed for harbor operations. Fully intact and upright, divers can circle her from end to end on the quiet ocean floor.

Ready for a Spooky Dive in Bermuda?

If you want to dive into the spooky depths of Bermuda’s water, there are several different types of PADI certification to get you there.

Formal training for wreck diving is especially important for your safety as it involves special procedures, techniques, and equipment. The PADI Wreck Diver Specialty Course covers all the fundamentals and includes four scuba dives to give you practice in the open water.

Enrolling is simple: you must be at least 15 years old and have earned your PADI Adventure Diver certification or higher. PADI’s wreck dive certification covers the basics, from navigating the inside and outside of a wreck to the appropriate gear you’ll need for wreck diving. You’ll also learn how to plan and map a wreck site along with special techniques to protect the site’s integrity.

You complete your certification after four wreck dives with an instructor, and away you go! The eerie deep blue of Bermuda awaits…

Images: DIVE BERMUDA

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Jump on board the latest addition to the Emperor fleet and enjoy diving the famous sites of the Red Sea with this fantastic special offer. Great value for money and perfect for small groups of buddies. Price NOW from just £1195 per person based on sharing a twin cabin/room including: Flights from Gatwick to Hurghada with 23kgs baggage 7 nights in shared cabin 3 meals a day, soft drinks, red wine with dinner 6 days’ diving, guide, 12ltr tank & weights, Marine Park fees and port departure fees Free Nitrox Booking deadline: Subject to availability – limited flight seats at this price. Alternative departure airports available at a supplement. Call Diverse Travel on 01473 852002 or email info@diversetravel.co.uk. More Less

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